Evaluate As If Nobody’s Watching

Two quick announcements before today’s post. First, as I mentioned last week, I’m heading off to the annual conference of the Canadian Evaluation Society, taking place April 30 – May 3 in Vancouver. I’m looking forward to connecting with friends and colleagues during that time, so if you’ll be in attendance, look me up! I’m hoping to write some blog posts while out there and will likely be active on Twitter. Important to note – while I will have email access, I may be delayed in responding to emails, both during the conference and the following week (up to and including May 10) as I’ll be taking some vacation time in the area following CES.

The second announcement is more of testing the waters. Vu Le, non-profit unicorn extraordinaire and the man behind the thought-provoking site Nonprofits with Balls1, recently suggested Thursday May 25 as a day for non-profit agencies and funders to meet (jump to the end of the post) – not with any formal agenda, but simply to connect as individuals and chat. I’m thinking to arrange this kind of meetup in Saskatoon – any of my readers interested? Drop me a line if you this is something you’d like to see.

(As a side note, I had drafted up the post below before learning about this event – chalk it up to coincidence and/or fate that it’s related to funders and evaluation!)

Evaluation and accountability: for many non-profit organizations, these two concepts are inextricably linked. Granting bodies, in providing funds for programs and services, expect that their resources are used to create positive change, whether it’s improved test scores for children, stabilized living situations for those in crisis, or fewer people living in poverty. As part of the application process, most funders ask would-be recipients to provide the goals and objectives of their program, along with outlining how they will demonstrate whether these goals are being met. Successful applicants are then required to report on these metrics to show that the funds were used effectively.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is an important function for evaluation, both for the funders and the organization themselves. After all, why spend money and staff time on a program or service that is not creating its intended effect? At the same time, evaluation can provide multiple benefits for non-profits, including through means that wouldn’t prompt comparisons with a visit from financial auditors.

Uncertain about how evaluation can be useful beyond satisfying funder requirements? Follow along for a quick thought experiment. Take the phrase “dance as if nobody was watching” and apply the general principle – namely “Evaluate as if no funder or key external stakeholder would see the results” (not as succinct as the original, but you get the idea). What if we evaluated for a purpose beyond accountability? What would the process look like, in what ways would it differ from previous evaluations completed solely for a funder, and how would we use it?

Some suggestions for evaluation use beyond the grant report:
Internal improvement – if we’re following a program model, we can determine how well it’s working and proactively adjust it. For example, if we determine that we’re missing most of our target audience because they use Facebook to learn about community events and service and we don’t have a presence there, we can shift our outreach efforts in response.
Test alternate approaches – in other words, a pilot study. Instead of betting the farm on something new, try it out alongside existing services, with a specific evaluation plan that examines its outcomes and processes. The value of a pilot is still useful when adapting an approach that’s been utilized effectively elsewhere – what works in one place may very well run into unanticipated challenges in a different context. In either case, using evaluation methods such as developmental evaluation can help support innovation and adaptation while ensuring that the work is grounded in real-time information about its effects.
Share successes internally – whether its with staff, volunteers, organization leadership, or close supporters and donors, who doesn’t like hearing how well the organization is doing? While such internal reporting does serve an accountability function in one sense, it can also build buy-in for future evaluation use by demonstrating to key stakeholders that it’s not a scary process.

These are just a few uses for evaluation beyond checking off a box on a program report. While not every evaluation will fulfill these functions in addition to providing accountability, I think it’s worth keeping in mind.

For the foreseeable future, most evaluations will continue to have some degree of accountability associated with them, with funders and other external bodies wanting some assurances that resources are being used efficiently and effectively. At the same time, even if the primary focus of an evaluation is for this purpose, ask yourself what else can be done to ensure that the process is useful for the organization. By adding a few questions to a client satisfaction survey, can we better understand their strengths and challenges and perhaps change how we deliver programming as a result? Is it possible to collect quotes and stories from program participants to share as part of outreach efforts? Can we identify how our work connects with other efforts in the community to determine levers for creating broader systems change?

So the next time you see the “e”-word on a grant application, try viewing it as an opportunity instead of a hoop to jump through. Just don’t forget your dancing shoes!

Full disclosure – I’m incredibly self-conscious when it comes to dancing